The road to a better government

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The road to a better government

The Sewol ferry disaster uncovered comprehensive problems within the bureaucratic structure of the Park Geun-hye administration and has since raised questions about the competence of government officials.

And with a cabinet reshuffle imminent, the widespread notion now is that the government must appoint responsible, better-principled figures.

But the confirmation hearings at the National Assembly could prove to be an inevitable barrier in achieving an ideal scenario. Hearings in recent years have primarily focused on candidates’ personal lives and their families, the size of their wealth or their morality, rather than their leadership capabilities.

“Two out of five people declined when the Blue House offered them ministerial positions,” said Lee Sang-hui, a lecturer at Semyung University who served as the secretary of public relations planning at the presidential office under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration.

“The majority of researchers based outside of Korea and entrepreneurs rejected the offers for fear that the hearings would target their personal or moral shortcomings and their family members.”

He noted that the hearings system, introduced in 2000, has degenerated into a political battle between parties and led to the repeated loss of valuable human resources. Over the past 14 years, lawmakers have often tried to take advantage of the hearings as an opportunity to attack their opponents, a practice that has persisted.

“For lawmakers, the live, nationally televised confirmation hearings are an opportunity to stand out,” said Sohn Byung-kwon, a professor of political science and international relations at Chung-Ang University. “That’s why they raise sensational questions.”

There have been a string of hearings that have defied common sense. In 2010, under the Lee government, the opposition took issue with a ministerial candidate at a confirmation hearing after his property assets expanded by 156.6 million won ($152,500) in just four months, accusing him of “inappropriately accumulating wealth.”

He barely passed the evaluation after visiting the opposition party leader to admit that the money had been his daughter’s compensation from her divorce.

The criteria applied to each candidate have also been highly arbitrary. In 2006, Kim Byung-joon, the vice prime minister for education, was forced to step down just 13 days after he was appointed after allegations emerged following a hearing that he had plagiarized his thesis.

The Grand National Party, the former body of the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition party at the time, claimed the accusation was “a serious fault for the nation’s education leader.”

But last year, when the main opposition Democratic Party, the former entity of the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), questioned whether Lee Sung-han, the nominee for chief of the National Police Agency, had plagiarized his thesis, the Saenuri sided with the candidate, reversing its stance from years back. Kim was eventually appointed after admitting to the plagiarism and apologizing for it.

Jang Sang, former president of Ewha Womans University who was designated as the nation’s first-ever female prime ministerial candidate in 2002, failed to pass her confirmation hearing after lawmakers raised accusations that she had falsely registered her address and was engaged in real estate speculation.

She published a memoir the next year, in which she recalled feeling “very offended to see lawmakers considering me a potential criminal suspect.”

“I was shocked to see lawmakers twisting my words after I answered,” she writes.

In 2010, the National Assembly published a report on measures to improve the confirmation hearings system. It cited the morality-focused verification process for candidates as the biggest concern.

“Besmearing a candidate for a morality problem is easy, whereas finding fault with [his or her] expertise or competence is a matter of relativity,” the report says.

As an alternative, it proposed the hearing be split into two steps: In the first, the candidates’ educational background, military service and tax evasion issues would be reviewed. Those who pass the initial evaluation would then be assessed on their job performance and expertise.

Lee Nae-young, a professor of politics and diplomacy at Korea University, claimed that losing qualified figures for key government posts because of the high barriers imposed on confirmation hearings was a loss for the country, and recommended that both the ruling and opposition parties reach a consensus on the criteria and principles to be discussed in the process.

“Opposition parties can become ruling parties some day,” he said. “They may adopt a rule to leave matters concerning candidates’ privacy behind closed doors.”

BY KANG TAE-HWA and CHAE BYUNG-GUN [spring@joongang.co.kr]

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